Toxic Thursday: Phthalates

Thursday, August 7

What are Phthalates (and how the hell do you pronounce it?!) 

Phthalates (thah-lates) are a chemical compound which act as a plastic softener, preventing it from becoming brittle. They are used in almost anything plastic including toys, furniture, car seats, flooring etc. They are also used extensively in cosmetic and medical products, helping to stabilise fragrance and helping lotions to absorb into the skin. They are found in almost all cosmetic products, including deodorants, hair sprays, moisturisers, lotions, foundations etc.

Why are they supposedly bad for us? 

In a similar way to parabens, there is a lot of concern about the effects of long term exposure to this chemical, especially when it is present in virtually every aspect of our lives. There are currently no sufficient human studies that explore the effect of phthalates, but animal studies have shown clear links between phthalate exposure and low birth weight, low sperm count and birth abnormalities. They are widely believed to be an endocrine disruptor, with detrimental effects on kidneys and liver. A current study at Mount Sinai is conducting a long term study with young girls in New York City,  looking at how phthalates affect hormones and puberty in girls and if their exposure to the chemical is linked to breast cancer.

But if they're everywhere, why isn't everyone already suffering the effects? 

People might be, but we just don't know yet. There are multiple ways of phthalates entering our bodies, including ingestion, absorption and inhalation. We can ingest them by drinking water from plastic bottles and eating food out of plastic containers. We can inhale them by being in an enclosed space such as a car or a bus, and we absorb them through our use of cosmetic products. By far, the most common source of phthalate exposure is via cosmetics, fragrance and medication (Link Here). It may be that common issues such as asthma, diabetes, breast cancer and hormone imbalances may in some part be effected by the presence of phthalates in everything we use. Until there are conclusive human studies, we won't know for certain.

If they are potentially so dangerous to our health, why aren't they banned already?

In the EU, all phthalates have been banned from children's toys and many are banned from cosmetics. The EU is a lot stricter over the use of Phthalates than in the US. In the US, some types of phthalate are banned, but not all. This is because initial studies indicate that phthalates are safe in small quantities. However it's worth remembering that those initial studies are funded by the companies who patent and produce the phthalates, as proof that they should be sold and used in products. As long as manufacturer's stick to these safety thresholds, there shouldn't be a concern. But this type of evidence only looks at a fraction of phthalate use, and doesn't consider the implications of long term use or exposure. One cigarette won't give you lung cancer, but smoke 20 a day for 40 years and it will be a different story! It's up to other researchers to investigate the long term effects of these chemicals, and of course these studies can take a long time. Ingredients won't get banned on speculation alone; it will take many conclusive studies conducted over a long period of time to bring about change. However many companies are removing phthalates out of their formulations, as the evidence is very strong against their use.

How do we avoid them? 

As the most common source of phthalate exposure is through cosmetics, here is a good place to look at reducing your absorption of this chemical. But of course it's not that easy. They are often hidden under the term 'Fragrance', which is covered by the Trade Secrets Act. This means the manufacturer can include any concoction of ingredients without having to list them all individually. Phthalates could make up 20% of the product, and you would never know! However, if it is listed in the ingredients list, below are common terms used:

- Benzylbutyl Phthalate (BzBP)
- Di-n-butyl Phthalate (DBP)
- Diethyl Phthalate (DEP)
- Dimethyl Phthalate (DMP)

DBP is marked for concern by the EU as an endocrine disruptor and can be found in nail polish.
DEP is used to prolong the wear of perfume, so is rarely listed on it's own and is hidden under 'Fragrance'

I hope this has given you some insight into the complexities surrounding the use of phthalates in cosmetic products and hopefully clarified some questions around their use. If I've missed anything important please let me know and I'll add it in, I tried to include only the major points as otherwise this could be the length of a book!

Chesca x
Next Post Newer Post Previous Post Older Post Home


  1. More research is needed because as you mention what we do have is flawed. Thank goodness for EU regs because at least we have a bit of protection to some ingredients in comparison with the US.

    1. Exactly. I'm so grateful we have the EU regs as they seem to be far less afraid of banning ingredients that might be dangerous. Seems USA regs wait until the last moment unfortunately.

  2. Excellent post! I`ve already shared this on the Nuciya facebook page.

    Thanks so much for writing this and sharing!

    1. Thanks so much Amber! Glad you enjoyed reading it :) x

  3. Love reading posts about ingredients! Thanks for sharing :) x